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Storm will die down as Cunneyworth makes Montreal adjustments

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Randy Cunneyworth and Brian Gionta communicate, but in English. (US Presswire)  
Randy Cunneyworth and Brian Gionta communicate, but in English. (US Presswire)  

Randy Cunneyworth walked into the press conference with a playbook in one hand and a French I vocab workbook in the other, and all of Quebec relaxed its gastric tract.

Well, that actually hasn't happened yet, but it will if Cunneyworth knows what's good for him. He has become the first Montreal Canadiens coach in nearly 30 years to know no French, and the entire province ... well, some corners of the entire province, anyway.

This is not a surprise to those who pay attention to hockey. Montreal is the galactic capital of Francophone hockey, and speaking French is part of the daily deal for all its citizens, and especially its most visible industry.

So of course it has become a hot political football, which amuses those who see that Carolina has never had a coach who spoke cracker or a California coach who spoke hey-dude or a Green Bay Packer coach who spoke "Damn, it's cold."

In fact, it even got to the ridiculous height among those trying to find a happy middle ground that if Cunneyworth had been, say, Mike Babcock, it wouldn't have been so bad.

This of course is idiotic, because Mike Babcock coaches the Detroit Red Wings and is unlikely to willingly leave that job for the one in Montreal, ever.

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But there is no middle ground here. Some things are cultural, and what we know of our Francophone brethren is that this is a storm that will blow over as soon as Cunneyworth starts slipping some rudimentary French phrases into his pressers, like:

"Vous avez vu Le jeu, l'écrivez." ("You saw the game, write it.")

"Si je voulais que vous sussiez ce qui s'est produit lors De La réunion, je vous aurais invité dans La reunion." ("If I wanted you to be in the meeting, I would have invited you into the meeting.")

"Je ne présente pas ses observations sur des rumeurs d'Internet." ("I do not respond to Internet rumors.")

"C'est une question stupide." ("That's a stupid question.")

"Vous êtes un imbecile." (You are an idiot.")

"Allez demandent à votre bon ami Ron Wilson ce qu'il pense." ("Go ask your good pal Ron Wilson what he thinks.")

That's six phrases he can master immediately, in addition to the one he must already know by watching game videos of his new team:

"Oh merde."

But let's be honest here, if we must. This is one of those two-day stories that goes away as soon as Cunneyworth does what he knows he must do -- win games while learning the language. There is no evidence he cannot coach -- at least not yet -- nor that languages are beyond him.

And besides, the simple act of trying to learn it will win over most of the Quebecois. They don't need Nicolas Sarcozy or even Segolene Royal (two French politicians we mention here only because we wanted an excuse to type the name Segolene Royal) to coach the team. They need a guy who can assemble lines, organize the defense, tell them to do the things Jacques Martin told them to do, only in a different voice, and win. Every added phrase of French will help with the other problem.

And before you smug it up here, every place has its cultural tics. Southern Illinois, Southern Cal, the Southeastern Conference -- it doesn't matter where you go, the customers want the local team to reflect its biases and interests. We just think Montreal is weird because most of us don't speak French.

The fun part here, though, is that many Quebec politicians are stumping eagerly for a franchise in Quebec City to teach Montreal a lesson about proper devotion to its Francophone heritage.

This is like Alabama and Auburn fighting over who is properly Southern, and yes, that actually is as stupid as it seems. We also think that sort of thing does happen with Alabama and Auburn, and with USC and UCLA about blondness, and about Minnesota and Wisconsin about the right kind of mid-morning bracer, and New York and New Jersey about, well, about anything.

But the politics of it are delicious, and all because Randy Cunneyworth, a fist-faced NHL veteran who has paid his playing and managerial dues, decided to take Spanish in school. Or German. Or Tagalog. We don't even know, because that stuff doesn't matter to most of us.

But it does in the place where he's working, and he does know that, and he wants to make a good impression, and he will begin the task of learning the local tongue, and everyone will appreciate his work acknowledging their biases. Maybe he can start with this one:

"Nous avons juste gagné, 5-1, et voulez-vous mâcher mon âne au sujet d'étudier mes temps français De verbe? Tais-toi. Cette entrevue est terminée."

I'll give you a hint: "Tais-toi" means "shut up."

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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